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PETER in Rome?

PETER in Rome?

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It will be the purpose of this study to show that there is no positive proof linking the Apostle Peter to the City of Rome — neither in his establishment of, and ministry to the Roman Church, nor in the later literary evidence of legends and scanty records regarding his ministry and death. His “twenty-five year episcopate” can and will be shown to be an easily disproved theory. Traditions surrounding his death and burial will be seen for the vague and often contradictory legends that they are...
It will be the purpose of this study to show that there is no positive proof linking the Apostle Peter to the City of Rome — neither in his establishment of, and ministry to the Roman Church, nor in the later literary evidence of legends and scanty records regarding his ministry and death. His “twenty-five year episcopate” can and will be shown to be an easily disproved theory. Traditions surrounding his death and burial will be seen for the vague and often contradictory legends that they are...

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Published by: FreetosharePublications on Sep 02, 2010
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The Fourth Century
— Eusebius,
Lactantius, And

We come now in our study to the time when the traditions concerning

Peter and Rome assume their most definite and precise form. The “Age of

Shadows,” as Hurlbut calls the earlier times, surprisingly becomes an age of

light and clear vision into the matters which were before obscure.

It is from the beginning of this century that we have the positive

statements of that most illustrious of all church historians, Eusebius.

We also have Eusebius’ Latin contemporary, Lactantius, and later,

Jerome. We will complete our study with these writers, inasmuch as

with them the evolution of tradition regarding Peter and Rome takes

its final form.

Page | 42



It is Eusebius who is the first to make any attempt to date Peter’s

activities at Rome. Interestingly, he gives us both a beginning and ending

date in general terms. The first, he tells us, was a result of Simon Magus’

activities in Rome. Speaking first of Simon, Eusebius writes:

And coming to the city of Rome, by the mighty

co-operation of that power which was lying in wait

there, he was in a short time so successful in his

undertaking that those who dwelt there honored

him as a god by the erection of a statue. [Eusebius,

Church History, trans. by Arthur C. McGiffert (Vol.

I, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip

Schaff and Henry Wace; Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952; p. 115), II,

14, 5.]

He then introduces Peter:

But this did not last long. For immediately, during

the reign of Claudius, the all-good and gracious

Providence, which watches over all things, led Peter,

that strongest and greatest of the Apostles, and the

one who on account of his virtue was the speaker for

all the others, to Rome against this great corrupter of

life. He, like a noble commander of God, clad in

divine armor, carried the costly merchandise of the

light of the understanding from the East to those

who dwelt in the West, proclaiming the light itself,

and the word which brings salvation to souls, and

preaching the kingdom of heaven. [Ibid.]

Page | 43

It is upon this statement that the twenty-five year episcopate of Peter is

based. Jerome refines this, as we shall see, to be the second year of Claudius

until the fourteenth and last of Nero — that is, from 42 to 67 A.D.

The dating of the Apostle Peter’s coming to Rome has now been utterly

abandoned by all scholars including even modern Catholics. Duchesne’s

cautious criticism earned him the censure of the Church at the turn of the

century, but O’Connor’s exhaustive work of 1968 clearly states that

Eusebius confused Peter with Simon Magus, who no doubt did come in

that year. [Daniel William O’Connor, Peter in Rome (New York:

Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 10.]

Zahn is equally emphatic that it was Simon the Magician, not Simon

Peter, who came at that early date:

Eusebius was not the only writer — perhaps he was

not the first one — who was led by the Acts of Peter,

through the combination of the tradition of Simon

Magus’ residence in Rome under Claudius with the

tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome under Nero,

to assume a long Roman Episcopate of Peter. Once

it had arisen and become current, the story lost all

connection with its source. [Theodor Zahn,

Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids:

Kregel Publications, 1953), Vol. II., p. 169.]

It is sufficient to say that no modern author would attempt to maintain

Eusebius’ claim as to Peter’s coming to Rome in the reign of Claudius.

It stems clearly from confusion with Simon Magus and cannot be

justified in the light of Biblical truth or modern scholarship.

Page | 44

Martyrdom Under Nero

Eusebius’ recording of the deaths of Peter and Paul at the hand of Nero

is quoted below in its entirety in view of its importance:

When the government of Nero was now firmly

established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits,

and armed himself even against the religion of the

God of the universe. To describe the greatness of his

depravity does not lie within the plan of the present

work. As there are many indeed that have recorded

his history in most accurate narratives, every one may

at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the

man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of

which, after he had accomplished the destruction of

so many myriads without any reason, he ran into

such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his

nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed

his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very

many others of his own family, as he would private

and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths.

But with all these things this particular in the

catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was

the first of the emperors who showed himself an

enemy of the divine religion. The Roman Tertullian

is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows:

“Examine your records. There you will find that

Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine,

particularly then when, after subduing all the east, he

exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in

having such a man the leader in our punishment.

For whoever knows him can understand that

nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was

something of great excellence.” Thus publicly

Page | 45

announcing himself as the first among God’s chief

enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the

Apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was

beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was

crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul

is substantiated by the fact that their names are

preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the

present day. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a

member of the Church, who arose under

Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published

disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian

heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where

the sacred corpses of the aforesaid Apostles are laid:

“But I can show the trophies of the Apostles. For if

you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you

will find the trophies of those who laid the

foundations of this Church.” And that they both

suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by

Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the

Romans, in the following words: “You have thus by

such an admonition bound together the planting of

Peter and Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of

them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth.

And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and

suffered martyrdom at the same time.” I have quoted

these things in order that the truth of the history

might be still more confirmed. [Eusebius, op. cit. (pp.

128-130), II, 25, 1-8.]

Here for the first time we have the assertion that “Peter likewise was

crucified under Nero.” We are offered not the slightest proof, only

Eusebius’ word for it, and as we have already seen regarding the coming of

Page | 46

Peter to Rome, Eusebius’ word is not infallible! The more familiar one

becomes with the notable historian, the more one is tempted to conclude

that on occasions Eusebius guessed at some of his answers.

Let us also note that the quotations that follow from Caius and

Dionysius have nothing to do with Nero! Eusebius simply makes the

statement on his own authority without a shred of evidence or proof.

Caius’ proofs concern the cemeteries of Peter and Paul, which he terms

“trophies.” What Caius meant by “trophies” is much disputed. [Oscar

Cullmann, Peter — Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press Ltd.,

1953), p. 118.] The word means “victory memorials” in the Greek and

could refer to simple memorials as well as graves, or the place of execution

with no reference to interment.

Cullmann makes most interesting observations about the “martyr

relics” in the passage below:

We should also emphasize that in the first century

not the slightest trace of a cult of martyr relics can be

found. The first testimony to that we find only

about A.D. 150, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In

view of the expectation of the end of the world in the

immediate future, a concern for relics clearly

constitutes an anachronism in thinking of the sixth

decade of the first century, especially in those terrible

days of persecution under Nero. [Ibid., p. 119.]

How true! The preservation (indeed, adoration) of the relics of the

martyrs was not a product of the first century, but that such a relic would

have found its location in the garden of Nero on Vatican Hill does seem

preposterous in the extreme. We are forced to conclude that this was an

invention of a later time.

Page | 47

Beside the validity of the cemetery tradition, let us take notice of whom

Eusebius quotes for proof, and whom he does not quote. The authors he

cites are late. Caius is an ecclesiastical writer of the third century whose

personal history is veiled in obscurity. Dionysius of Corinth is somewhat

earlier, but as noted before, his conclusions reflect changes in the original


Eusebius was well acquainted with Clement of Rome, Ignatius,

Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr (of Rome), but these he does not call upon for

evidence. He prefers the later writers, one of whom makes mention of

“trophies” of the Apostles, both of whom assert Peter and Paul “laid the

foundations” and “planted” the Church at Rome, a fact already disproved.

Obviously Eusebius was faced with the same problem of historians

since his day — the earlier authors could not be used as proof of what Eusebius

sought to prove, least of all that Peter died under Nero, or little else in

practical fact.

Justin Martyr’s complete silence on the whole subject of Peter and

Rome is noteworthy for three reasons: (l) that he wrote prolifically from

Rome itself; (2) that he wrote early in the second century (his death is given

at 165); (3) that he mentions Simon Magus three times without a single

mention of Peter or a confrontation between them, before Nero, etc. [F. J.

Foakes-Jackson, Peter: Prince of Apostles (New York: George II. Doran

Company, 1927), p. 154.]

Arguments from silence, while they may be inconclusive, do cause us to

ask searching questions. One especially worth asking is: Why do we not

have more facts from earlier sources closer to the site of the traditions? It

does appear suspicious that we must wait for those further removed in time

and space to fill in the details, and then with remarkable precision!

Page | 48

67 or 68?
67 or 68?
67 or 68?

67 or 68?

But we have seen no mention of the exact year of Peter’s martyrdom in

our quotations from Eusebius. How is it then that he is credited with

putting his death in the fourteenth year of Nero’s reign? The answer,

significantly, is that in his Church History, Eusebius makes no attempt at

dating the event. He does so only in his Chronicle. Zahn’s analysis shows

great insight:

In his Church History, Eusebius refrains from

making any more definite chronological statement,

except to say that Paul’s death, as well as Peter’s, falls

in Nero’s reign. . .

He continues:

In his Chronicum, also, Eusebius shows that he has

no more exact tradition at his command . . . .

Eusebius himself knows no more than what he says,

namely, that Peter and Paul died under Nero, and

does not intend that 67 shall be regarded as the year

preceding that Linus succeeded Peter as bishop of

Rome. It was only his way of looking at the history,

according to which the slaying of the Christians was

the climax of Nero’s crimes, that caused him in his

Chronicum to place the persecution of the Christians

at the end of that emperor’s reign. [Theodor Zahn,

Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids:

Kregel Publications, 1953), II, pp. 77-78.]

This author feels it would be unproductive, if not impossible, to

pinpoint the year of Peter’s death based only upon Eusebius’ evidence — or

the lack of it. That “Eusebius himself knows no more than what he says” is

Page | 49

very likely, indeed. In Church History, he says Peter and Paul died under

Nero and even that statement goes unproved. One might go so far as to ask

if Eusebius really knew all that he said — especially when we reflect on his

statement about Peter’s coming to Rome in the reign of Claudius.

Eusebius as a historian was not without his faults. McGiffert calls

attention to one of these in his introduction to Eusebius’ work:

In the third place, severe censure must be passed

upon our author for his carelessness and inaccuracy

in matters of chronology. We should expect that

one who had produced the most extensive

chronological work that had ever been given to the

world, would be thoroughly at home in that

province, but in truth, his chronology is the most

defective feature of his work. The difficulty is

chiefly due to his inexcusable carelessness, we might

almost say slovenliness, in the use of different and

often contradictory sources of information. Instead

of applying himself to the discrepancies, and

endeavoring to reach the truth by carefully weighing

the respective merits of the sources, or by testing

their conclusions in so far as tests are possible, he

adopts in many cases the results of both, apparently

quite unsuspicious of the confusion consequent

upon such a course. In fact, the critical spirit which

actuates him in dealing with many other matters,

seems to leave him entirely when he is concerned

with chronology; and instead of proceeding with the

care and circumspection of an historian, he accepts

what he finds with the unquestioning faith of a

child. There is no case in which he can be convicted

of disingenuousness, but at times his obtuseness is

Page | 50

almost beyond belief. An identity of names, or a

resemblance between events recorded by different

authors, will often be enough to lead him all

unconsciously to himself, into the most absurd and

contradictory conclusions. [Arthur C. McGiffert,

“The Life and Writing of Eusebius of Caesarea,”

The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip

Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), I, Chap. 3,

3, pp. 50-51.]

Therefore, let us not be too eager to have Eusebius decide for us, once

and for all, the chronological questions of our study.

How Historical is Eusebius’ History?

The sum of the matter is this: Eusebius’ statements as to Peter going to

Rome and later dying a martyr’s death there under Nero in the year 67 or

68 (depending on which version of the Chronicum is cited) were seen by

many — especially in earlier times — as proof positive that these facts were

so, for they rested on the testimony of that great ecclesiastical historian.

But a closer examination shows:

1. that his statement regarding Peter’s coming to Rome under Claudius

is a palpable error that has not met the test of time, scholarship, or Biblical


2. that the sources he quotes for proofs of his assertion that Peter died

under Nero err in the latter half of their testimony by saying Peter founded

and planted the Roman church, which testimony runs contrary to Biblical


Page | 51

3. that these same sources say nothing of Nero or the time or manner

of Peter’s death;

4. that these sources are both late and obscure;

5. that those sources closer to the actual events in time and location are

not, and cannot be cited inasmuch as they do not substantiate the tradition

that Peter died in Rome under Nero.

While we may acknowledge that Eusebius says Peter was crucified in

Rome under Nero, it would surpass the bounds of credulity to state that

Eusebius proves that important theological point, for the proof of that claim

is sorely wanting. While recognizing fully the development of the tradition

of Peter at Rome, this author would call attention to the absence of positive,

historical evidence — solid proof — that the legend is true.

Lactantius and Jerome

The Latin writers of the fourth century round out the development of

the Petrine tradition and are quoted below.

Lactantius (260-330), Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died:

His Apostles were at that time eleven in number, to

whom were added Matthias, in the room of the

traitor Judas, and afterwards Paul. Then were they

dispersed throughout all the earth to preach the

Gospel, as the Lord their Master had commanded

them; and during twenty-five years, and until the

beginning of the reign of the Emperor Nero, they

occupied themselves in laying the foundations of the

Church in every province and city. And while Nero

reigned, the Apostle Peter came to Rome, and,

Page | 52

through the power of God committed unto him,

wrought certain miracles, and, by turning many to

the true religion, built up a faithful and stedfast

temple unto the Lord. When Nero heard of those

things, and observed that not only in Rome, but in

every other place, a great multitude revolted daily

from the worship of idols, and, condemning their old

ways, went over to the new religion, he, an execrable

and pernicious tyrant, sprung forward to raze the

heavenly temple and destroy the true faith. He it was

who first persecuted the servants of God; he crucified

Peter, and slew Paul: nor did he escape with

impunity; for God looked on the affliction of His

people; and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of

authority, and precipitated from the height of

empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-

place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be

seen. [Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the

Persecutors Died, trans. by William Fletcher (Vol.

VII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander

Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm.

B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951; pp. 301-

302), Chap. 2.]

Jerome’s statements on Peter in Lives of Illustrious Men differ slightly:

Simon Peter the son of John from the village of

Bethsaida in the province of Galilee, brother of

Andrew the Apostle, and himself chief of the

Apostles, after having been bishop of the church of

Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion —

the believers in circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia,

Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia — pushed on to Rome

Page | 53

in the second year of Claudius to overthrow Simon

Magus, and held the sacerdotal chair there for twenty-

five years until the last, that is the fourteenth, year of

Nero. At his hands he received the crown of

martyrdom being nailed to the cross with his head

towards the ground and his feet raised on high,

asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the

same manner as his Lord . . . . Buried at Rome in the

Vatican near the triumphal way he is venerated by

the whole world. [Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men,

trans. by Ernest C. Richardson (Vol. III, The Nicene

and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry

Wace; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

Company, 1953; p. 361), Chap. 1.]

And later speaking of Paul, Jerome adds, “He then in the fourteenth

year of Nero on the same day with Peter was beheaded at Rome for Christ’s

sake and was buried in the Ostian way. [Ibid., Chap. 5, p. 363.]

So we see that with Jerome we have the complete tradition. Now after

the passing of over three centuries since the actual events, we are given all of

the facts:

1. Peter came to Rome in the second year of Claudius to oppose

Simon Magus;

2. He continued there twenty-five years until the fourteenth and last

year of Nero;

3. He was crucified at Rome upside down at his own request;

4. He was martyred on the same day as the Apostle Paul.

Page | 54

This fourth point is uniquely Jerome’s and makes for a nice closing

embellishment to an oft-embellished story. One doubts that he had any

more difficulty adding this final touch than any of the earlier writers had in

sketching in the broader strokes of the Peter-in-Rome legend.

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